Mental health: How are schools addressing this issue?

October 10 marked World Mental Health Day, a day that highlights the significance of mental health issues. Statistics from World Health Organization (WHO) show that suicide is the second leading cause of death in young people between 15 to 29 years, after road injury. One person dies every 40 seconds. This is mostly attributed to depression, which is a mental illness.

Mental health has for long been an overlooked issue in society, however, a recent increase in suicide cases is a cause for concern.

Experts highlighted the need for schools to have a working strategy in order to curb mental health related cases in students.

Schools should have bodies to ensure students have a safe place to talk about their troubles. If not, it could affect their wellbeing. Net.

Cherish Nkurunziza, understands the pressure on high school students all too well. While in high school, more than once, she has found herself talking a friend out of suicide. The next day, the same person who threatened to end their life walks into class and hands in homework, like nothing happened. 

“Many of my friends come to me when they’re struggling and I’m very happy that they trust me enough to do that, and my priorities will always be with them. But school doesn’t recognise how difficult it is to talk a friend out of suicidal thoughts one night, and watch them go about daily assignments normally the next days,” she says.

The 19-year-old graduated last year from high school at Collège George De Fox De Kagarama (CGFK) in Kicukiro. She believes that schools just aren’t paying enough attention to mental health, leaving their students vulnerable to tragedy.

“Most schools, from what I hear from peers, believe that they don’t have a mental health problem. It’s as if the teachers and administrators don’t think that anything wrong can happen in their own school.

“There is so much going on in students’ lives that schools don’t know about, and that’s because they don’t provide an environment where students feel safe to talk about it,” she says.

Nkurunziza says, from her own experience, this is also because their problems often aren’t taken seriously.

“I feel when students do seek out help it is not always given, which is disheartening,” she adds.

“Last year, my friends and I were talking about how we were sick of seeing our peers struggling. I have a lot of friends who have dealt with mental health struggles and general life stresses.

“We decided we needed to do something about it, but the school just blew it off as ‘kids being a little bit stressed’. Students are rarely taken seriously.

“I should add that there are some wonderful teachers and school administrators who do their best to support students,” Nkurunziza says. 

William Safari, the programmes manager of National Union of Disability Organizations of Rwanda, says that though the Ministry of Education embarked on a journey to initiate mental health learning in schools, there is a gap of skilled labour.

“You can’t teach what you don’t know. And this will always create a gap. I believe that teachers should be taught how to handle these students in the first place, and then be tasked to teach it to students.

“I have personally noticed situations where a child is sent to a special need’s institution, rather than first being helped by the teachers themselves,” he says.

The other thing, he points out, is for teachers to love their profession because only then will they be eager to help these students. 

“Maybe I need to highlight that mental health teaching in schools offers a valuable opportunity for school leaders to share strategies and solutions to the problem in the education setting, with the goal of providing the best environment for students to address this issue.”

Etienne Kalisa, an official at the Work Force Development, highlights that although children often feel low from time to time, if your child is feeling unhappy and low for a prolonged period of time, seek professional help.

And the primary source of this help, he continues, should be any qualified teacher, school counsellor or welfare worker.

If the problem is complex, then they may suggest approaching a specialist.

Adelaide Dusabeyezu, the head teacher of APACOPE Primary and Secondary School in Muhima, Nyarugenge District, says that securing mental health support for pupils can be a real challenge, but a worthy one that all students should practice.

“There’s nothing that we can do that is going to give the child the exact help she/he needs. Though I think that being open about mental health and encouraging conversation can be a landmark and powerful way to improve wellbeing in school,” Dusabeyezu says.

Mansul Kakimba, the secretary general of Heads of Schools Organisation (HoSO), believes that instead of people questioning whether schools are doing enough, they should question whether there is an active working strategy.

“When you look at the initiatives, such as the one for special needs programme, you will find that each school has been encouraged to have a mental trainer. We can’t assess it now, but a few years from now, we will be able to tell whether it has been efficient,” he says. 

editor@newtimesrwanda.com

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